By Doug Green
Why is a movie often more interesting than a sermon? Why am I willing to sit through a 2-hour B-quality movie yet struggle to sit through a 30-minute sermon?
We build our sermons on God’s eternal Word. They are all about God. They ought to be amazing.
So, how can a movie be more interesting than a sermon?
Could it be this simple: Visuals are more interesting than abstract theories? Interesting sermons, like a movie, are visual sermons. Boring sermons are not. They are –– and I have preached them just like you –– a traffic jam of propositional truths, abstract concepts, and invisible theories. In other words, they are boring because people cannot see them.
Since no preacher I know sets out to be a boring preacher, what can we do to make our sermons more compelling and visual to a visual generation who needs to hear them?
Here is what effective preachers have discovered: Be more visual and less abstract.
Clarification of abstract biblical truths is vital. The appealing preacher takes a propositional truth and makes it visual — a movie that remains true to the Scripture while relevant to the audience.
Visuals in the Text
In light of the biblical main idea, determine which aspects of the text are already visual. Most texts have more visuals than you might first recognize. Look for them, committing to see only what is authentically in the text.
Use Psalm 1 as an example. Visuals fill this psalm. Look at verse 1. What do God’s paths — the paths that wisely lead to life — look like? The Psalmist answers his own question with a simile. The blessed man, he says, “is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.”
So, we have one visual of that blessed man: a vigorous, growing tree. With this, we visualize the biblical truth. We are ready to describe with words what we see in our minds.
The visual (tree) is a tangible representative of the text’s main idea, but we need to enhance it. Although we understand the basic nature of a tree, we need to know more about this tree, using concrete language to describe what we see so the audience can see it too.
Concrete words add dimension, are specific, exact, and explicit. They are tangible. These kinds of precise nouns and active verbs add specificity and appeal to our experience. They bring something blurry into focus. They help us see the tree’s height, colors, age, width, type, and anything else that brings this great visual alive. Describe how you see this tree. Every person in your congregation knows about trees, so help them see the one you see.
Why take time to describe this tree? Because the Psalmist used a tree to describe the wise, righteous man, knowing his audience would better understand the invisible, abstract concept (wisdom and righteousness) with a visible, tangible image (a tree). The preacher’s job, then, is to illuminate this visual, connecting the audience with the text.
But who wants to come to church to hear a sermon about a tree?
Therefore, do not forget the tree is an illustration about the real topic: a wise and righteous person. After taking time to give the tree expanded visual depth, consider what this simile (the tree) is saying about people. How does the single mom on the second row apply this visual in her life? What is her teenage son supposed to do with this tree? Ask questions about the simile:
“How can I be like a tree planted by streams of water?”
“What story helps her bear fruit in season?”
“How can he have leaves that do not wither?”
What about life in your unique community answers these questions with visuals? Are there stories of others you know — full of visuals — that answer these questions? While you are describing what this looks like, show, in high definition, how ordinary people apply these biblical truths in everyday life.
Application:Susan Jones reminds me of the ficus tree in our backyard. It is so tall you can spot it throughout the neighborhood. It protects our house from the heat of the day. When the kids were small, we built a tree house, etc…
I have watched Susan tower above her circumstances. As a single mom, she’s raised her kids to love Jesus. Always aware of their unique struggles, she taught them the Scriptures and asked them challenging questions, shading them from harm, etc. …
Visuals Not in the Text
Psalm 1:2, for example, says something important but does so propositionally, without a visual: “But [whose] delight is in the law of the Lord.”You need to help your people see this, too, for it is an important part of the text. What does this look like? How can you describe this aspect of righteousness? What would this person look like 3,000 years ago? What would he or she look like today? How can you help your audience see this person, complete with actions, living out the meaning of this verse? If you do not make this verse a visual story, you will lose the impact of what the Psalmist said. Take it from an invisible concept and make it a visual memory.
Application:When I think of verse 2, it is hard not to think of my father-in-law, John. He delights in God’s Word. When he talks about the Bible, his face lights up. It is not a chore for him to read God’s Word each day; you can tell he loves it. His conversations about life are always full of Scripture. Recently, when faced with a family crisis, he…
Storyboard Your Sermon
As you go through Psalm 1 and do this over and over again, collect all the biblical visuals and string them together, queuing up a walk through the text that is a visual candy store. These vivid pictures in your mind (they are all about explaining the text) become your sermon on Psalm 1. You are able to describe the Psalm well, engaging the audience to see with their “ears.” If they can see it, they can retain it. If they can retain it, they can apply it. If they can apply it, they can walk in righteousness.
Visuals are easy to remember. Concepts, propositions, and sentences are difficult to recall without memorization, for they exist invisibly. However, a visual story or image does not. You can talk about it because you see it.
If you can see it and you do the thorough job of describing what you see to others, then the audience will see it as well as the “reels of the movie” begin to roll. This is why turning truth into a picture is so effective. It assists you, giving you the ability to store the entire sermon in the film room of your head, not reliant on notes. It assists the audience, giving them the truth they can see with their ears, allowing the Holy Spirit to transform their hearts.
Hollywood filmmakers “storyboard” their movies, arranging the scenes in a series of visuals that sequentially display the plotline. Each storyboard is a visual setting of the scene they are going to film. This storyboard outline of the entire film tells the story, giving the basic structure of the plot. Likewise, taking each visual preaching point within the sermon and reducing it to one storyboard visual enables you to capture the sermon on the film inside your head.
The complete collection of these storyboarded scenes, spliced together with skillful segues, comprise your entire sermon in film fashion. As you proceed through the movements of your sermon, you see the entire sermon visually. If you can see it, so will they. If you cannot, your sermon might be headed down Boring Boulevard, a place where Good News ought not reside.
Jesus was never boring. His sermons, much like His Bible, the Old Testament, were full of visuals: parables, metaphors, similes, quoted dialogue, and stories. He was a great preacher.
After all, His sermons were, and still are, box office hits.